18 July 1998 I had the rare privilege to be present at an 80th birthday celebration for Nelson Mandela. That morning hundreds of conference delegates, including myself, shuffled slowly through high level security, without complaint, knowing how privileged we were to be present on such an occasion. The intensity of the guards, as each of us was checked in and thoroughly searched, emphasized the importance of the event.
And after what seemed hours of anticipative waiting, finally this legendary man addressed us. If his speech was inspiring, I don’t remember. What has always stayed with me is not what he said but what he did. A children’s choir of more than a hundred children sang ‘happy birthday’ to President Mandela and then prepared to leave the assembly. The master of ceremonies thanked the children and continued with proceedings. But, as he began, Mandela stood up and whispered something in his ear. The master of ceremonies stopped. The whole assembly watched and waited. Stopping a dignitary mid-sentence was not usual protocol, no matter who you were.
Mandela, in his own unhurried and dignified manner, walked off the stage and stood where the children would file past him. His attention was solely on the children. He shook hands with every child, smiling and saying a few words to each one as they passed.
The assembly waited, every eye fixed on his example. Only when he had greeted the last child did he return to his seat and indicate for the ceremony to proceed. That day I saw the greatness of the man. Mandela lived what he believed: that there is no more important agenda than showing each unique person ‘You matter!’